Monday Matters (September 16, 2019)

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Psalm 139:1-18:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them-they are more than the sand; I come to the end, I am still with you.

Orientation
 

If it isn’t true, it ought to be.

I find myself saying that about a number of things, and including the origins of the word “orientation.” Maybe some wiser reader can confirm or debunk, but I’ve been told that the word finds its origin, at least in part, from baptismal services in the first centuries of the church.

These services were held on Easter eve, and they went on for a long time. The liturgy included long lists of renunciations, renouncing every imaginable kind of evil in the cosmos, in our social systems, in our hearts. They also included long lists of affirmations, positive and hopeful statements about how the baptismal candidate intends to live. In the Episcopal liturgy, knowing that many Episcopalians don’t have the stomach for really long liturgies, the number of renunciations and affirmations has been reduced. There are three of each. You can find them on page 302-303 of the Prayer Book.

But here’s the deal. I’m told that way back when, in the course of those early liturgies, the renunciations were said in darkness of night, facing west, the place of darkness, the place where the sun disappeared, a place that at that time people imagined was inhabited by barbarians and stupid people.

When they were through with the renunciations, the candidate would pull a 180 and turn to the east. If the timing of the liturgy was right, the sun was just cracking the horizon. With that turn, the baptismal candidate would turn to the light. That was their new orientation, as in facing the orient, the east. It was about choosing a direction. It was about turning to the light.

The word ‘orientation” has many meanings in our culture. It speaks to human sexuality, as we are called to respect the dignity of every human being. It speaks to the way a home or office building is situated on a plot of land. And in September, as schools and churches start, it speaks of programs of initiation and information and explanation, by which people are oriented, by which they can be told how to move in a forward direction.

If this baptismal stuff is true, it speaks of direction, and how we as people of faith are to orient our lives. I thought of this in particular on Saturday when in the daily readings assigned by our church, we read Psalm 139. It made me recall my orientation to seminary a few years ago. We were gathered as an entering class to learn about our three year course of study at Union Seminary in New York. We were excited to be there, a place whose history was marked by theological giants. We were on hallowed ground. We anticipated deep, rigorous, erudite study.

In the course of that orientation, we were addressed by the Rev. James Forbes, preaching professor who went on to serve as Senior Pastor at Riverside Church.  He told us he had orienting advice for us. Since I had been out of school for a while, and was not sure I had the academic chops to cut it, I was all ears.

He said in this orientation session: “I have just one word of advice for you: Memorize Psalm 139. It will change your life.” And I thought, “That’s it?” I grew up in a church where we engaged in lots of bible memorizing and little serious biblical scholarship. I thought he’d tell us to study hard. Memorize?

He told us to let this particular psalm be our guide. Let it orient us, in heart and mind. I did commit it to memory at the time and still remember a lot of it. A chunk of it is included above. I commend it to you. Let it guide you this week and beyond. Let it orient you with the promise that God goes with you, knowing you better than you know yourself. Take some time this week to think about how your spiritual life is being oriented, in which direction you are headed. Like those early Christians on Easter morning, turn to the light, remembering what Jesus said: “I am the light of the world.”

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org

 

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Monday Matters (September 9, 2019)

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The Letter to Philemon, recapped:

In the New Testament book, the Letter to Philemon, we eavesdrop on one of Paul’s personal communications. (It’s not usually nice to read other people’s mail, but it seems canonically correct in this case.) Here’s the story in a nutshell (my version). The apostle Paul is in prison and meets up with another prisoner named Onesimus, a runaway slave who may have stolen money from his master, Philemon. Onesimus has some kind of transformation while in prison, under the mentorship of Paul. When his sentence is up, Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, not as slave but as friend and brother. Paul not only asks Philemon to accept him, but Paul offers to cover the cost of any loss that Onesimus has incurred. The implication is that reconciliation occurred. Apparently there was a first century bishop named Onesimus. Maybe this was the same guy.  Could be.

A reading from Romans 8:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

September 9, 2019
 

I used to be silently critical of new grandparents who also happened to be preachers. I noticed that as they held forth from the pulpit (that piece of furniture that exists six feet above contradiction), many of them talked way too much about the new addition to the family, as if they had discovered grandparenthood.

Then three months ago, I became a grandparent of an extraordinarily remarkable young person. And let me just say that I think I’ve exhibited remarkable restraint in not sharing at length, every Monday morning, the marvels of this stunning child.

Before he arrived, his parents did something unusual. They asked if we had any suggestions for names. I immediately went biblical. There are a lot of distinctive choices. Zerubbabel. Athaliah. Jeroboam. One day on a long drive, I thought of how few baby boys I’ve known who were named Onesimus. Actually, there are none. I knew that to name a child Onesimus Sidebotham was to invite middle school bullying. So I never put it in the suggestion box. But it’s a great name. It means useful.

I preached on Onesimus yesterday, as he appears in the New Testament letter to someone named Philemon. Apologies to those who heard the sermon, but his story has been on my mind. I gave my version of a recap of what we know about him, printed in the column on the left. Take some time today and read the whole letter. It’s only 21 verses, providing a case study in Christian community. As I thought about this letter’s relevance, there were three things that struck me about his story.

First, it tells us that there is no place that God’s love cannot work. I imagined Paul in prison, slightly obsessive-compulsive missionary, wondering what spiritual entrepreneurial opportunities he was missing as he was in the slammer. What was God thinking? Didn’t God need him to be out and about saving people? But in that place, where church planting was put on hold, Paul mentored one young man. Maybe others. Maybe only him. And maybe that was the reason for the whole time in prison. Is there a place that you think is beyond the reach of God’s love, a place beyond usefulness? It may be a place of challenge or strife. It may be a place of boredom or routine. Could it be that the place where you are right now is the place to which God calls you, the place where God wants you to show and share love? Is that hard to believe?

Second, there is no person God’s grace cannot use. That’s true of Paul, whose early days were spent persecuting the Jesus movement. Quite a turn-around. That’s true of Onesimus, who had done something to end up in prison. That’s true of many biblical characters who hear God’s call and think it’s a wrong number. Moses wasn’t a good speaker. Isaiah had unclean lips. Jeremiah was a kid. Peter was a self-confessed sinner. Mary asked “How can this be?” It may be that you have little idea how God could actually use you. But as Monday morning dawns, I bet there will be all kinds of opportunities in this day to do God’s work. If you can’t think of any, ask the Holy Spirit to show you some.

Third, there is no relationship beyond God’s redeeming power. Paul came to know of a broken relationship between members of the community. He used his influence, his wisdom as an old man, to build a bridge, to heal a relationship, to make a way forward. That’s what the community does at its best, bringing people together. And in the power of the Jesus movement, that kind of healing power can take place in families, in work places, in friendships, in churches, in nations, between races. How might you be Onesimus-ian in that situation? How might you be useful?

When Paul wrote about God’s love in Romans 8, he envisioned that love as bigger than we could ever imagine. You can read a bit of that vision in the verses from Romans printed in the column on the left. Use it as confirmation that wherever you are, whoever you are, wherever you’ve been, whatever mess you face, God’s love has a way of finding a way. Maybe that’s why the first Christians were called people of the way.

You may not want to change your name to Onesimus, but God knows you are useful.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement
www.renewalworks.org

 

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Monday Matters (September 2, 2019)

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Love and work, work and love, that’s all there is.
-Sigmund Freud
The Collect crafted for Labor Day
Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Readings selected for Labor Day:
-Ecclesiasticus 38:27-32a
-Psalm 107:1-9
-1 Corinthians 3:10-14
-Matthew 6:19-24
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw– the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward.
1 Corinthians 3:10-14

St. Paul and Sigmund Freud: Love and work

It’s Labor Day, one of the few national/secular holidays that has crept its way into the church calendar. So somebody somewhere sometime thought that Labor Day has something to do with our faith. What might that something be?

Each year, this holiday (a.k.a., holy day) asks people of faith to think about the work we are given to do, why and how we do it. There are prayers and readings chosen for the day. I’ve printed the collect for the day in the column on the left. Note how it indicates that in our work we are interconnected with others, whatever that work may be.

The readings chosen for the day have a lot to say about work. You might want to look them up. I’ve noted citations in the column on the left as well. A reading from Ecclesiasticus points to the variety of work we do. In the gospel passage, an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenges disciples to think about why they are working, and what they treasure. (Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.)

And then there’s a brief passage from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. He wrote to this community, an unruly group, often squabbling with each other the way church folks still squabble. Nothing new under the sun. As the apostle coaches them, he talks about the work they’ve been given to do. For him, that work in its great variety is a matter of building on a foundation. It brings to mind what Sigmund Freud said about work and love. He said: “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”

All of which makes me think about our foundations. On what are we building our lives? Freud said that love and work are the foundations, the cornerstones. St. Paul takes it a step further, asking us to consider where love and work find their foundation in the construction of our lives. On what are love and work based?

For those of us swimming in the stream of the Jesus movement, we need to recognize not only that our lives are built on love and work, relationships and effort. In St. Paul’s words, we need to see that our love and work, our relationships and efforts are based on a person we commit to follow. To riff on a favorite hymn: Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ the head and cornerstone.

So take some time on this day off to think about your own life, about your relationships and about where you apply effort. Think about how love and work provide a cornerstone, a foundation for you. And think about what it means to have Jesus as foundation for love and work. In my early Monday morning meandering, here are a few answers: Christ as foundation means we build our lives on grace. It means we build our lives on service. It means we build our lives on humility. It means we seek to be a peacemaker. It means we attend to the outsider. It means we practice forgiveness, and I do mean practice, because at least in my case, I need to get better at it. It means that we see that love of God is inseparable from love of neighbor. It means a new way of life.

Newsflash: There are other foundations on which we can build our lives. Hear what Jesus is saying: Where our treasure is, there will our heart be also.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement
www.renewalworks.org

Register Now!

Leading for Discipleship:
A conference especially for those
who have worked with RenewalWorks
Sept. 30-Oct. 2 Wilmington, NC

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Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me, O Lord God of hosts; do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of me, O God of Israel.

Psalm 69:6

 

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:  ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”

Mark 1:1-3

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Ephesians 2:13-21

Walls and ramps

What’s your must see TV? For me, it used to be the Muppets, and not just when I was a child. Of late, it’s the segment of the PBS Newshour on Friday, when Judy Woodruff moderates a conversation between Mark Shields and David Brooks. I appreciate her spirit and wisdom. I wish she would give tutorials to every other journalist. And I really appreciate the way these two gentlemen converse, often disagreeing with each other (and of course, with me) and still showing respect, civility, kindness and humor. We need more of that. Lots more. And that has made me particularly interested in David Brooks’ book The Second Mountain. In that book, he describes his unusual spiritual journey. He grew up in a Jewish family in New York and attended an Episcopal school and an Episcopal summer camp. Friends from that camp experience remain among his best and longest lasting. It was fun for me to read because the school he identifies was located in lower Manhattan at the church where I met my bride. And the camp he identifies was a place we would go regularly for retreat. All of which is to say that he has found spiritual home in both Judaism and Christianity. I don’t know many people who’ve done that in the way he describes. As he talks about his own journey of faith, there’s an interesting passage in which he identifies both walls that blocked further spiritual development and ramps that made movement forward possible. Here are the four walls he identifies. First, he notes that religious people often have a siege mentality, a sense of “collective victimhood that moves them from a humble faith to a fighting brigade.” I suspect that’s where the notion of crusades comes from. I bet we’ve all seen it. Second, he notes that religious people are often really bad listeners, failing to meet people where they are, improvising “off-the-shelf maxims and bumper sticker sayings.” It reminds me of my favorite Dave Barry question: “Why is it that people who want to tell you about their religion never want to hear about yours?” Third, he talks about how people often use religious concern to practice invasive care, using the cover of faith to get in other people’s business. And finally, he accuses religious folks of settling for intellectual mediocrity, checking God-given brains at the door. These are walls he has experienced, blocking spiritual growth. I wonder this morning if you identify with any of these or if there are other walls that have stood in the way of your own faith development. Thanks be to God, David Brooks also identifies four ramps that have helped him access a deeper spiritual life. The first for him, perhaps reflecting time hanging around the Episcopal Church, has to do with the power of ritual, the “collective enactments of moral order and sacred story.” Second, he celebrates an unabashed faith, a faith unafraid to express itself. This is something our Presiding Bishop teaches us.  Third, he talks about prayer, admitting that he doesn’t feel very good at prayer, confessing that prayer can often be used to deliver a message to folks we’re with. In our house we call it horizontal praying: “Dear God, help my sibling not to be such a jerk.” But David Brooks understands prayer as an encounter and conversation with God, suggesting the central thought that what we are talking about is relationship. Finally, an on-ramp for him is a deepening spiritual consciousness, a counter-cultural recognition that not everything in life is a matter of material success. I wonder this morning if you identify with these or if you would name other ramps that have furthered your own faith development. Ask yourself this week: What have been the walls and the ramps in my own spiritual journey? Such reflection may call for forgiveness and gratitude. Then think about how you may have functioned as a wall or ramp in someone else’s life. You may need to make some amends on that one. How has your faith community been wall or ramp? And then forgetting what’s behind, take this week as a chance to serve as a ramp to someone in your life. Ask the Holy Spirit what that might be. Opportunities abound.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement. www.renewalworks.org

 

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Monday Matters (August 19, 2019)

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Gratitude as the gospel speaks about it embraces all of life: the good and the bad, the joyful and the painful, the holy and the not so holy. Is this possible in a society where gladness and sadness, joy and sorrow, peace and conflict remain radically separated? Can we counter the many advertisements that tells us, “You cannot be glad when you are sad, so be happy: buy this, do that, go here, go there, and you will have a moment of happiness during which you can forget your sorrow? Is it truly possible to embrace with gratitude all of our life and not just the good things that we like to remember?


Jesus calls us to recognize that gladness and sadness are never separate, that joy and sorrow really belong together, and that mourning and dancing are part of the same movement. That is why Jesus calls us to be grateful for every movement that we have lived and to claim our unique journey as God’s way to mold our hearts to greater conformity with God’s own. The cross is the main symbol of our faith, and it invites us to find hope where we see pain and to reaffirm the resurrection where we see death. The call to be grateful is a call to trust that every moment of our life can be claimed as the way of the cross that leads us to new life.

Henri Nouwen, from an article called “All is Grace,” Weavings, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1992

All is grace

An intriguing irony of the gospels: the best teachers are not the really religious people of the day. Lessons come from a good Samaritan, an ostracized woman delivered from demons, a hated Roman centurion, a Canaanite mother referred to as a dog, a foreign leper, children regarded as worthless in that society. They know and show what it means to have a relationship with God while the clergy du jour stumble along cluelessly as blind guides. Jesus himself, born a homeless refugee, incarnates God’s presence with us.

So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised these days if we’re taking moral lessons not from the most popular Christian preachers, but from sports and entertainment figures, including late night TV comedians.

Such lessons came to me last week as I watched Anderson Cooper interview Stephen Colbert. I commend it to you. Many of you have probably seen it already. One clergy friend pondered showing the interview in lieu of Sunday sermon. These two guys talked a lot about the political situation, subject of another column. But what captured my interest was Colbert’s rich theological insights into the human experience of suffering, something I suspect we each know something about. As one of my mentors used to tell his congregation: “Suffering is the promise life always keeps.” A bit bleak, perhaps, for a Monday morning. But tell me it isn’t true?

Colbert knew loss from an early age, his father and brother killed in a plane crash. He recently wrote a condolence letter to Anderson Cooper, who had experienced his own loss. I think that’s what triggered the interview, in which Colbert said: “The bravest thing you can do is to accept with gratitude the world as it is, to love the thing that I most wish had not happened,” Colbert had asked: “What punishments of God are not gifts?” When pressed to explain, he said: “It’s a gift to exist. It’s a gift to exist,” Colbert, slightly changing emphasis in the retelling. “And with existence comes suffering. There is no escaping that. I guess I’m either a Catholic or a Buddhist when I say those things.”

There’s more: “If you are grateful for your life…then you have to be grateful for all of it. You can’t pick and choose what you’re grateful for. And then, so what do you get from loss? You get awareness of other people’s loss, which allows you to connect with that other person, which allows you to love more deeply and to understand what it is like to be a human being if it is true that all humans suffer.” Colbert went on to say that this is partly why he is a Christian, because in Jesus, God comes to suffer among us. In several places in the gospels, it says that Jesus regarded the people with compassion, a word which literally means “suffering with.” Karen Armstrong says that word is at the heart of all great religious traditions. That’s something for which we can give thanks.

Scripture calls us to give thanks in all things. That doesn’t mean we don’t wish bad things hadn’t happened. But the difficult things, which we all know something about, can become a bridge, creating deeper connection with God and neighbor. Going back to the gospels, I imagine that the best teachers were those who knew suffering.

Give thanks in all things? It reminds me of a college friend, who ended his religion papers with the acronym SOKOP: Sounds okay on paper. Easier said than done. That is certainly true when it comes to gratitude in the face of suffering. All of this, it seems to me, must be our own interior work. A person of privilege like myself can only tell myself to be grateful in the limited suffering I’ve experienced. Mostly rich people problems. I can’t tell that to people who become deathly ill with no warning, to toddlers put in cages, to parents separated from children, to spouses widowed after gun violence, the list is unending.

I can only enter into the counter-intuitive dynamic by which greater human community is gained through loss. It’s a message of resurrection. It’s Easter after Good Friday. This week, may we each be given grace to act on the challenging scripture from I Thessalonians (5:18): In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.

-Jay Sidebotham

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Jay Sidebotham

Contact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

Register Now!

Leading for Discipleship:
A conference especially for those
who have worked with RenewalWorks

Sept. 30-Oct. 2
Wilmington, NC
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Monday Matters (August 12, 2019)

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You must learn, you must let God teach you, that the only way to get rid of your past is to make a future out of it. God will waste nothing.

-Phillips Brooks

So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

-Romans 12

To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

-I Corinthians 12

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

-Ephesians 4

Repurposed

A friend and spiritual advisor also happens to be an extraordinarily talented ad guy, creative director in an ad agency in New York. In a tough business that can seem singularly secular and often mean-spirited, he has thrived for years, working with wit and wisdom, while preserving a kind and gentle spirit, letting his light shine, sharing the spirit of Jesus.

He has used his gifts in that world for good, harnessing the considerable influence of his agency to develop (for instance) a city wide campaign to alleviate hunger by painting faces around potholes in the street indicating hungry mouths, reminding city dwellers that hunger surrounds us. In one campaign, he invited pedestrians to take selfies with huge spoons (7 feet tall) to support soup kitchens. He arranged for top notch chefs to provide meals where the wealthiest and most destitute in the city dined together in style. He’s good at what he does, using gifts and skills and experiences to shine God’s light and love.

I know a priest, an excellent pastor, who spent years working as a flight attendant. I can’t help but think that the experience of air travel, handling complaints and anxiety with grace, is excellent preparation for work in a church.

One of my favorite preachers worked as a Toyota car salesperson before she made the slight career shift to seminary. In fact, one year she was awarded best salesperson in North America. She brought those compelling gifts of persuasion to her preaching. Homiletically speaking, she knew how to close the deal.

A parishioner manages money for people. He functions as pastor, invited into the most intimate family conversations, bringing the compassion of the gospel and a gift for listening into those settings.

Jesus called his disciples to leave fishing nets and follow him. He suggested there were transferable skills. They would now be fishing for people. Jesus called Peter to a new life. He didn’t disregard Peter’s history but transformed it. Jesus called Paul to spread his gospel of grace. The energy of the apostle was transformed, changed from someone who obsessively ran from town to town persecuting the church to someone who ran from town to town obsessively promoting the church. Same person. In some ways, same gifts. Same work ethic. Repurposed.

We each have gifts. We each have life experience. The God of creation is extraordinarily creative in putting those gifts to work. Sometimes to humorous effect. And what’s even better, quite often the Holy Spirit not only takes our assets but also takes our deficits and transforms them into useful resources to accomplish God’s mission in the world. In my work in advertising and in the church, I’ve had moments of success and moments of failure. Some projects really took off. Others bombed. Each were teachers. The work I get to do now often seems to be the summation of those peaks and valleys. God seems to work that way.

God uses not only the work we may have done, but our personality types, our family histories, our hobbies, our relationships. In short, it seems that there is not much that God cannot in some way repurpose for the way of love. Wherever you’ve been, whatever you’ve done, let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5)

-Jay Sidebotham

4
Jay Sidebotham

Contact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

Register Now!

Leading for Discipleship:
A conference especially for those
who have worked with RenewalWorks

Sept. 30-Oct. 2
Wilmington, NC
Click here for registration and more info

Monday Matters (August 5, 2019)

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I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:1,2

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.

Luke 9: 28

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.

Leo Tolstoy

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

Change is good. You go first.

Dilbert

Change

When I served at a church in New York, we decided to begin an evening service, a more informal worship experience designed for folks who’d been out of town for the weekend, a service where people could come casually, maybe straight from Central Park or the beach. We called it our “Come as you are” service. The slogan for our advertising for this service: “Wear your Sunday worst.”

The design process for the service took six months, an extended period of prayer, discernment and planning. We decided to do a test drive on one Sunday, October 10, launching the first service with great fanfare. It was quite different from the traditional morning worship. As one congregant noted: This is not your father’s Episcopal Church. We had a great crowd, but that first night, the service went on way too long. A lot needed to be tweaked.

In the week that followed, we made changes, implemented the following week, October 17. The service was shorter. A few things eliminated. Others done differently. I thought it went well. Much to my surprise, at the end of that second service, I was met by a few irate parishioners who said: “Why did you change it? That’s not how you did it last week?”

They might as well have been uttering those six most dreaded words: We’ve never done it that way. I realized how quickly human beings, especially Episcopal human beings, settle into tradition. We all want the security of a predictable and fixed experience. We struggle with change. One week was enough to establish immutable tradition. Does that surprise you?

Tomorrow we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, a mysterious story told in the first three Gospels. Jesus climbs the mountain with three buddies. The special effects start. Jesus is changed, transfigured in an amazing pyrotechnic display that includes cameo appearances from Moses and Elijah. It’s amazing and the disciples are bowled over, so much so that Peter, who tends to over-verbalize but who probably says what everyone else is thinking, tells Jesus: “I’ve got a great idea. Let’s fix this moment in time. Let’s make a visitor center here on top of the mountain, a place for you and Moses and Elijah to just stay put. We don’t want this to end.” Peter is looking at institutionalizing this moment, something some religious people sometimes do. Just occasionally.

Jesus will have none of it. He knows this powerful experience is not the destination. It is meant to equip him for what lies ahead, the journey toward Holy Week. In short order, they go down from the mountain.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Peter. He exhibits truth about all of us. We want things to stay the same. That presents challenges, since the Christian life is about growth, transformation, movement, change.  And we all know how much we like change.

This week, I invite you to reflect on the story of the Transfiguration. Give thanks for your own spiritual experiences, your encounter with Jesus, however that has unfolded in your life. What have been your mountaintop experiences? How have they equipped you to move forward in your life, to grow? And then consider if there is some new thing unfolding in your life, your work, your neighborhood, your church, our nation? How are you resistant to change? How are you open to it? How can you and I be transformed as the reading from Romans in the column on the left suggests.

Think about where Jesus, where God, where the Holy Spirit might be calling you to grow, to learn, to change, maybe even be transfigured. And know that grace surrounds you and strengthens you as you navigate the growth opportunities ahead of you.

-Jay Sidebotham

4
Jay Sidebotham

Contact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

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Monday Matters (July 28, 2019)

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As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

From Galatians 3

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

-A prayer for the human family, from the Book of Common Prayer, p. 815

Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching, the breaking of bread, the fellowship and the prayers?
 
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?

 
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
 
Will you strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being?
 
I will with God’s help.

-From the Baptismal Covenant

Create in me a clean heart

Maybe this happens to you. I go through phases when a phrase from the Bible or Prayer Book or hymnal lodges in my brain. I find myself thinking about it in the middle of the night, when I’m stopped at a traffic signal, walking on the beach. Of late, here’s the phrase on my mind:

Create in me a clean heart
and renew a right spirit within me.

It comes from Psalm 51, which appears in a lot of our liturgies. It’s a psalm about the need for change. In my own life, I’m aware of a need for a change of heart, a new heart on a range of topics. One of those pertains to current discussions about race. Those conversations surround us, in news conferences and political debates, in newspapers and among pundits. They go on in our churches, around dinner tables, and for me, in my heart. The question is often framed this way: Is this person a racist or not?. It’s framed as an either/or. One or the other. We often hear folks rise in self-defense: “There’s not a racist bone in my body.”

I don’t know about you, but for me, I don’t think the key question is: Am I a racist? as if some people are entirely racist and others aren’t racist at all. The question I ask myself: How am I racist? How do I behave in racist ways? What are my racist bones? While I’m too embarrassed or ashamed to detail in this email my own racism, trust me, it’s there. I have done racist things, thought racist thoughts. I have prejudices. I often brim with judgment of others based on how they speak, what they look like, how they dress, where they’re from, where they go to church (or don’t), where they went to school (or didn’t), which bumper sticker is on their car. That kind of judgment, including racial judgment, is in my bones, with roots in early age. I grew up in suburb of New York. In that proudly progressive but mostly segregated community, relatives and neighbors and preachers taught and modeled (wittingly or unwittingly) discrimination based on race and gender and other factors. I have to admit it’s kind of in my DNA. And I’m not alone.

Last week, our church hosted a pilgrimage of teenagers from many parts of the country. The focus was the history of race relations in our part of the world, as a way to envision a better future. We realized we are both part of the problem and part of the solution. In the course of our conversations, a wise person cited Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

St. Paul was on to the same thing when in the Letter to the Romans he said; “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” For me, I’m mindful, as the verse from Psalm 51 circles for a landing, that racism and prejudice and judgment make up part of who I am. Again, I’m not alone. It’s part of our collective DNA, as Jim Wallis notes in his book: Racism. America’s Original Sin. The dynamic is at work in our country, in our national leadership, in our schools, housing and employment, in our churches, in systems and structures and in our hearts.

And so I ask, with St. Paul, (see Romans 7) who will deliver us? You may not want to get into politics on a Monday morning. This may not be an issue for you. If that’s the case, pray for those of us who struggle. Pray, because this is a spiritual issue. It has to do with daily spiritual practice. It has to do with following Jesus, who threw racial and gender and social distinctions out the window. It has to do with the human family.

Here’s some good news: We are led by a Presiding Bishop who sees racial reconciliation as a huge part of the loving, liberating, life-giving Jesus Movement. In baptism, we are called to persevere in resisting evil. Whenever (not if ever) we sin (Including the sin of racism) we are to turn. We are to seek and serve Christ in all persons, even when Christ comes well disguised. We are to respect the dignity of every human being, those who are demonized or dehumanized, those described as animals or infestation, those excluded or detained.

In all of those challenges, we are to commit ourselves to a new way of life. But as the Baptismal Covenant reminds us, we will only get there with God’s help, who promises to create in each one of us a new heart and to renew a right spirit within us.

Which leads me to pray: Dear God. Could you hurry up?

-Jay Sidebotham

4
Jay Sidebotham

Contact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

Register Now!

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A conference especially for those
who have worked with RenewalWorks

Sept. 30-Oct. 2
Wilmington, NC
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Monday Matters (July 22, 2019)

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Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

Romans 6:4

A prayer for the Feast of Mary Magdalene, observed today


Almighty God, whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and of mind, and called her to be a witness of his resurrection: Mercifully grant that by your grace we may be healed from all our infirmities and know you in the power of his unending life; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


An Episcopal priest named Robert Morris speaks about the commonplace and frequently unnoticed ways that people rise above their loneliness and fear as “ordinary resurrections.” He points out that the origin of “resurrection” is the Greek word “anastasis,” which, he notes, means “standing up again” and as he puts it unpretentiously, “We all lie down. We all rise up. We do this every day.” The same word, as he notes, is used in Scripture: “I am the resurrection and the life.” But in an afternote directed possibly at fellow members of the clergy, he observes, “The Resurrection does not wait for Easter.”

Jonathan Kozol, Ordinary Resurrections 
(pp. 107-108)

Ordinary Resurrections

This morning, think of someone who is, for you, a spiritual hero.

For me, Martha comes to mind. We were in seminary together. She was a successful, Ivy League trained lawyer in New York, very much at home in her native Upper East Side. She left that to pursue ordination in the Episcopal Church, a move that probably only a few would consider upwardly mobile. Not too long after ordination, she accepted a call to lead a congregation in the South Bronx, a place that had all kinds of challenges. Decades later, she still leads that community with grace and strength and courage, a church and a school offering a community center. 

Her work drew the attention of Dr. Jonathan Kozol, a Harvard educator who has written a number of books about the plight of poor children in our nation. He admits he is not a particularly religious person, but he began to hang around this church in the South Bronx and he got to know many of the children.

His earlier books that could be totally depressing gave way to a couple books that spoke of the inspiring promise unfolding in this church, under the leadership of Martha. One of those books is entitled “Ordinary Resurrections.” In it, he describes what he has learned from these urban children, what he has learned about hope. He notes that the word “resurrection” in Greek is “anastasis” which really means to stand again. And he notes the ways in which resurrections happen all the time, as you can read in the excerpt above.

At heart, we are an Easter people. We center our calendar around the Feast of the Resurrection (a.k.a., Easter). But as the New Testament says, because Christ has been raised, we also can be raised. Resurrections, even the most ordinary resurrections, can come to us. How have you experienced resurrection? When has a dead end become a threshold?

All of this brings me to another saint we can remember this morning. Today is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene. She is often mentioned in the gospels, and comes up a lot in church history, often disparaged because many in our tradition have not been able to make sense of the truth that probably the most faithful of all the disciples was a woman. For those who still imagine that women should not have voice in the church, we must acknowledge that she was the first person to preach about the resurrection. If she had not gone to the tomb and witnessed the resurrection and proclaimed that good news to the disciples, those disciples might still be in the upper room, locked behind doors, figuring out how to move forward, working on a strategic plan.

Jesus’ resurrection became a threshold for all the disciples, including Mary Magdalene. His resurrection, celebrated on this day when we remember Mary Magdalene (read the story of her witness in John 20), is celebrated every Sunday. It invites us to a life of ordinary resurrections.

And that is good news worth proclaiming when the politics of our day may seem like a dead end, when many of our churches seem in desperate need of new life, when health crises and broken relationship and debilitating loneliness seem like a big stone locking up the tomb of our lives.

Resurrections can happen. As sure as the sun comes up in the morning, they can happen today, in your life. Believe it to be true. Give thanks for saints who demonstrate that possibility, because we need to see what that looks like in real life. And live this Monday, July 22, in expectation that the God who raised Jesus from the dead can do a new thing in your life, in our church, in our big and beautiful and broken world. 

-Jay Sidebotham

4
Jay Sidebotham

Contact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

Register Now!

Leading for Discipleship:
A conference especially for those
who have worked with RenewalWorks

Sept. 30-Oct. 2
Wilmington, NC
Click here for registration and more info

Monday Matters (July 8, 2019)

3-1

I will bear witness that the Lord is righteous; I will praise the Name of the LORD most high.

Psalm 7:18

We hear the word evangelism and think automatically about someone telling somebody something so that they’ll change. But the truth is that evangelism is as much listening as it is sharing. It involves two people actually sharing their lives with each other. They share their stories and a new story gets written. That’s what evangelism is. It helps all of us find our way into a deeper relationship with God. And if there’s a deeper relationship with God, there’s going to be a deeper relationship with each other as well. That’s the bigger picture of evangelism. It’s more than just telling you how to get to heaven.

Michael Curry

Mostly evangelism is not what we tell people, unless what we tell is totally consistent with who we are. It is who we are that is going to make the difference. It is who we are that is going to show the love that brought us all into being, that cares for us all, now, and forever. If we do not have love in our hearts, our words of love with have little meaning. If we do not truly enjoy our faith, nobody is going to catch the fire of enjoyment from us. If our lives are not totally centered on Christ, we will not be Christ-bearers for others, no matter how pious our words.

Madeleine L’Engle

Calling all semi-evangelists

In the course of conversation with members of Episcopal congregations, I ran across a woman who had an interesting reaction when the topic of evangelism came up. You see, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry talks a lot about evangelism these days, making it a priority for our church. This woman wasn’t sure what to make of all that. She confessed: “I don’t know why we’re talking so much about evangelism.’ She said “Everyone in town who ought to be Episcopalian already is.” In other words, we didn’t need any more folks, thank you very much.

Her comment got me thinking about evangelism: why we do it; whether we should do it; how we might do it well; how respectful we can be; how tasteful we need to be. I suspect we’ve all been on the receiving end of folks we meet on doorstep or airplane or dinner party, folks with religious devotion so deep they are convinced we must see things their way. I remember what Dave Barry asked: Why is it that people who want to tell you about their religion almost never want to hear about yours?

My musing about evangelism led me back to one of my theological guides, Charles Schulz. Charlie Brown approaches Rerun, asking what he’s doing. Rerun says: “I’m with Linus, who is across the street knocking on doors, telling people about the “Great Pumpkin.’  Rerun says; “I’m standing over here so no one will know I’m with him.” Charlie Brown asks: “What kind of evangelist are you?” Rerun replies: “I’m a semi-evangelist.”

Charles Shulz, October 30, 1996
https://peanuts.fandom.com/wiki/October_1996_comic_strips?file=19961030.gif

I may claim that title for myself. And one of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is that evangelism best begins with ourselves. I’m convinced that we also need to evangelize within our own churches, reminding people that the way of love is nothing but good news. Too often church folk are associated with bad news, practicing what one preacher called ‘teeth-gritting Christianity.” Gandhi once said “I would be a Christian if it were not for the Christians.” Too often church folk don’t really seem to believe the good news that love is unconditional, that all are welcome, that we respect the dignity of every human being, that Christ is present in all persons, that grace is true. On some days, when I look at the state of American Christendom, it’s enough to make this priest a none.

A friend told me about a radio interview he heard with a pastor of a mega- church, thousands in attendance. The interviewer wanted to know how over 20 years, the pastor had grown the church. The pastor responded: “It’s simple. I just make one convert each day.” The interviewer pressed him on how to do that. The pastor said; “I am that one convert. Each day, I need to be converted.” In other words, the best evangelism was to tend to one’s own journey, one’s own faith, one’s own spiritual growth, one’s own discipleship, one’s own love of God and neighbor.

As a semi-evangelist, I’ve been exploring different (maybe tepid) ways to be an evangelist. Recently, when walking through airports, I’ve been whistling familiar hymns. It has sparked a number of interesting conversations, even people telling me they needed to hear that. I’m learning from folks at the check out counter at grocery stores and restaurants. Often, in this neck of the woods, they will say, “Have a blessed day.” I’ve been trying to say that, too. Sometimes, I’ll get in a conversation with someone, and they’ll reveal a challenge, and I’ll say: “How can I pray for you?’ Other times, I’ll ask a question like “Where have you seen God at work?” I’m amazed how many people have a story about God in their lives. Those are my recent meager efforts as semi-evangelist. Any other suggestions?

So calling all evangelists, or semi-evangelists: What’s the good news that is part of the story of Jesus? Where do you hear that good news? How does it touch your heart? And then think of a way to share that good news, in word and action, to listen for that good news in the lives of others.

-Jay Sidebotham

4
Jay Sidebotham

Contact:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
www.renewalworks.org

Register Now!

Leading for Discipleship:
A conference especially for those
who have worked with RenewalWorks

Sept. 30-Oct. 2
Wilmington, NC
Click here for registration and more info